Kalamaja: An Estonian neighbourhood by the sea

Tallinn can easily get sidelined as a destination that is only known for its Old Town. Yes, the Old Town is the piece de la resistance of the Estonian capital. But there are other aspects to this city, which also deserve mentioning.

After exploring the Old Town to my heart’s content for two days, and just to get a break from all that old-world charm (yes, I am a golden-age syndrome addict), I decided to venture out into the nearby localities. The first stop: Kalamaja neighbourhood.

Kalamaja is an old part of Tallinn – although not as old as the fortified Old Town. A former Soviet Armed Forces base, the district is now renowned for its unique wooden houses. These structures date back to hundreds of years and one glance at these houses’ aged exteriors will tell you that they have seen many many monsoons.

Kalamaja is filled with such houses which have aged gracefully

Kalamaja translates to ‘fish harbour’ and considering its proximity to the Baltic Sea it is not hard to imagine how important a role fishing must have played in this locality. Around 1870s, the neighbourhood also started housing a lot of Soviet factories, thereby bringing with it a working class vibe to the place. Back then, Kalamaja was connected to St Petersburg, in Moscow, by a railroad.

Details on a typical house in Kalamaja

As it is with places having this sort of historical background, Kalamaja was left to itself after the Soviets factories went kaputt and workers started leaving the place. The supposed ruin has now become desirable. Kalamaja today is the bohemian capital of Tallinn, attracting the creative types. I didn’t visit all the many art galleries and museums here, but spent most of my time just wandering through the quiet lanes. The idea wasn’t to tick off places to see here, but just to amble away time and get a feel of the place. Besides, the whole neighbourhood in itself is an art gallery: Wooden houses with interesting architecture paying homage to an era gone by; fresh coats of hues of red, green, yellow painted on some houses, depicting the pride the residents living inside must be feeling and some stone structures punctuating the row of wooden houses.

Thanks to its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the Kalamaja neighbourhood was always prone to attacks by invaders before the Soviets settled here. That’s the reason most of the houses here were made out of wood. In case the city anticipated an attack, the houses would be burnt down before people moved to the fortified Old Town. The current structures, therefore, aren’t older than a 100-150 years.

Quiet streets, almost empty looking houses – made me wonder if anyone really lived here?

Most of the buildings I saw were two-three storey structures covered with wooden planks on all sides and having a defined structure with few variations.

During my flanerie, I didn’t see a single soul hanging by the window. It made me wonder, if anyone resided in these houses or of they were abandoned? Especially, because it was a warm July afternoon. It was quiet, except for the howling sound of the breeze. After a point, I even stopped photographing the buildings as I realised, I wasn’t doing any justice to the photographs, thanks to the constraints of space and the not-so-wide angle lens on my smartphone camera.  

Easily one the coolest looking house on the street. Even the car to the left looked from another era

A little reading on the neighbourhood after a few days of leaving Tallinn, gave me the cliched answers. About how it’s now undergoing a revival as it has been discovered by artists. The restaurants in this neighbourhood are still relatively affordable than the ones at the Old Town square. But as a side-effect of not researching the place beforehand, I missed out on possibly exploring the abandoned Patarei Prison, which was right by the sea, and a glimpse of which I saw while hanging around at the shore.

Well, I guess one can’t always plan enough.

Most houses have a standard design with a stony base

Thankfully, I didn’t spot any massive construction or renovation projects happening on my walk in this district. The spectre of gentrification wasn’t that explicit here. Having said that, the district has reinvented itself with concepts such as the Telliskivi Creative City that has revamped the abandoned warehouses in the area to house over 200 indie businesses. I did not visit these areas, as I was not really going by the map.

But I wonder, how long the status quo would remain.

Every once in a while, you do come across stone houses
If not for that car, I’d have thought I have travelled back in time
Keep aside a couple of hours to really see this neighbourhood

More from the Tallinn trip

Vana Tallinn

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Doors of Tallinn

Doors of Tallinn

The Old Town of Tallinn has lots to offer — cobbled streets, limestone fortress walls, church steeples, old typography over some medieval looking inn, hand-drawn wooden carriages from which emanate fragrances of sweetened almonds and much more. It is the most well-preserved walled city which has earned the Old Town of Tallinn the tag of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I come from Mumbai, which also used to have fortifications. Not one bit of the erstwhile fort wall was left behind when the city authorities, then under British rule, decided to take the fortifications down between 1860-1874 for the city to grow. So I can only imagine that wall around the then H-shaped Bombay island.

Tallinn’s Old Town has a lot of its 13th century walled city plan, still in place. In a way, Tallinn’s Old Town is like a time capsule if you can unsee the touristy mores present all around you. Things can get overwhelming soon. It can then get tricky to focus on any one thing.

Keep your eyes peeled to check out these doors which are full of character in the Old Town of Tallinn

After many hours of walking spread out over three days, one thing started to emerge in the old city to me — the doors of houses and buildings which had retained the aesthetic of the eras gone by.

I forget what this establishment was, but the angled design on the door and the sculpture above it, made this one stand out

I was in Tallinn during the summer of 2017. Considering its geographical location, it’s safe to say that the cold climate dominates the city. The doors, therefore, were made out of wood — most of the ones that piqued my fancy at least.

Doors in Mumbai (back in the day) had a character to them, till everything became a sun mica polished affair with grilles on majority of them, to give an illusion of more space in this city. Doors in my native place and other rural parts of India that I have been to, still retain some character and you can see the wooden texture without much embellishments.

This was the door to a church, but the intricate woodwork deserved a place in this post

In Tallinn’s Old Town, doors to some buildings looked like they were just meant for one thing — arrest your attention. It made me wonder, how many feet must have passed through these doors, from the many centuries past. Oh the stories they could have told, if only they could speak. Most of the doors were closed, hinting at residential properties. Only the souvenir shops had open doors, thereby inviting you to closely observe them.  

This souvenir shop in the Old Town which had a basement shop made use of the door as a hanger on

There was nothing elaborate in terms of design when it came to most of the doors. It went with the philosophy of the more modern architecture I had observed during my week long stay there. While function trumped form for most of the doors, it was the little things that differentiated them from one another.

Doors of some of the residential buildings

An overuse of red with green demarcations on one door to the light brown pastels on the other. From a diamond shaped design on one, to the wooden portion in the top half replaced by glass in some. Floral flourishes on some to others which were intriguing enough to lead you down an underground cellar. Considering most of the structures are made of stone, inside the Old Town, painted in light pastel shades, the only dark colour profiles were seen on the doors of these buildings.

This was an entrance to an underground bar

There is one door in particular that is quite popular in the Old Town. It is the door that leads to the house of Brotherhood of Blackheads  — a brotherhood of unmarried, legally dependent, jobless German youth who could get acceptance to the Great Guild — a collective for artisans and merchants who were operating in Tallinn from the 14th century till around the 1920s.

The door stands out from all the others, and why not? The facade of the door was designed in the 16th century. The last members of the Blackhead brotherhood were around till the 1940s, before being sent away by the Russians. The distinguishing factor of the door on this house is the presence of intricate art work on the top portion of the door, with a wooden bust of their patron, St Maurice. The brotherhood exists in Hamburg, Germany, to this day.

The doors on buildings on the outskirts of the Old Town weren’t as well maintained

There were parts of the city where the doors didn’t seem like they had kept up with their contemporaries. Here, I realised, the crowds were also non-existent, so there was fairly little incentive to ensure the door looked its best. The doors here had the paint peeling off, the inner wooden texture visible and appearing brittle. Basically, a door screaming for a paint and polish job.

I would have loved to talk to the residents living behind those doors. But on my first day in Tallinn, my walking tour guide had informed me that Estonians are generally quite reserved by nature, and will not immediately strike a conversation with random strangers.

I tried my luck with some strangers on the street, but to walk up to a house to speak to the residents was a bridge too far, for an introvert like me.

More from the Tallinn trip

Vana Tallinn

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Vana Tallinn

There have rarely been any instances, where I have immediately been sold on a location – after watching a TV show.

Ever since I saw that episode of Travel with Rick Steves on Tallinn in 2014, this Estonian capital had already made its way to my travel bucket list. A city, touching the Baltic sea, with an old town surrounded by fortifications – majority of which was still standing – was all it took to have me convinced.

So when I had a couple of weeks free, after my German fellowship (three months in Germany, whaat?), it was really a no-brainer as to where I would be headed. This is the thing I love about Europe. Getting access to so many different cultures, without having the hassle of bothering with paperwork – God bless the Schengen Visa.

Old Tallinn Town Hall Square

As I made my way outside the airport, I was introduced to a slice of the tech savviness that is part of this country’s DNA. I purchased a travel card, Uhiskaart, for which you pay a 2 Euro deposit and load some balance for local travel. Having come from dot-on-time German public transport, I immediately realised that Tallinn’s sense of time was stretchable, after I waited ages for my bus to the city. That kind of reminded me of Mumbai, where time-wise things are fluid.

Tallinn streets were empty as my bus made its way outside the airport terminal. Only when I had made my way into the city centre, did I see more people around. Turns out the population of the whole of Estonia is a mere 1.3 million people, out of which around 450,000 live in Tallinn. That’s 1/20th the population of the city I come from. To put things into perspective there are more people living in Andheri than in the whole of Estonia.

Edgy contemporary design co-exists with centuries old aesthetics

When I told friends that I am going to Tallinn for a week, I got blank stares. ‘A week in Tallinn?,’ many questioned. ‘You can wrap it up in three days,’ said my German roommate. Ideally, if I were up to it, I could even wrap it up in two days. But I was not really looking at having a hectic tick-off-the-to-do-list vacation. I’d booked myself into this hostel – The Monk’s Bunk – for a good five days and all I was looking forward to, was travelling at a really slow pace.

The Monk’s Bunk hostel easily had the most chilled out staff who offered me a shot of Vana Tallinn on arrival!

The moment I checked into my hostel, I was treated to a shot of local cognac by the name Vana Tallin (which translates to Old Tallinn). The mere thought of that translucent dark brown concoction still makes me salivate. It was sweet with a hint of orange. There was a mild bite. A liquer I could easily have more than a couple of shots of. One thing I regret, is not picking up a bottle of it from Tallinn. That shot of Vana Tallinn immediately set in motion the friendly vibes I would continue to keep getting from this tiny European capital.

Most of my time in Tallinn was spent walking around the Old Town, the only reason for which I had decided to go there in the first place. After a point, I sort of became familiar with some roads, as I had exhausted the list of free things to see and do.

After unloading my luggage in my hostel, I quickly went out for walk in the chilly Tallinn evening

With Tallinn, walking led to a plethora of surprises. Discovering a rundown beach by the Baltic sea and taking a walk to one end of it, I stumbled on an abandoned prison which was not accessible, but only visible from a hole in door. I wasn’t expecting to see many Indian restaurants in Tallinn as it’s not really a must-do among the Indian tourists. I was proven wrong on my first evening. After a few walks around the main Town Hall Square, a couple of Indian waiters would flash a smile at me asking me my ‘haal chaal’. I relented and had dinner one evening at an Indian restaurant. Spoke at length with the Andhra owner of the place in Hindi (I was speaking with someone in that language in almost two months). Turned out there was a whole community of Indian traders in Tallinn’s old town. Were I in my journalist mode, I would have surely thought up a story idea.

On another day, I walked into an alcove from where I heard a lot of chatter. This led me to a courtyard which was surrounded by local handicrafts shops and a bakery which was adorned with old grandfather chairs. I just had to have a hot chocolate sitting in one of those cosy chairs.

The Estonian War Memorial has a cross, but Estonia isn’t a religious country

You’ll see symbols of religion all around you in the old town, but surprisingly, Estonians aren’t a religious bunch. With over 90 percent of the population not following any religion. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or surprised. But when you consider how technologically advanced this tiny nation is, that detachment from religion seems logical. Having just got independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, Estonia adopted technology early to avoid concentration of power. It’s the only country in the world which offers an e-Residency program. I can go on and on about how tech-forward Estonia is, but I’ll stick to travel.

A side-effect of the being ruled by Denmark, Sweden and finally Russia is that a lot of Estonians are quite reserved by nature. It’s a pretty young country.

That classical structure on top – Stenbock House – is where the Prime Minister of Estonia resides. Notice something missing? Z-level security!

Nicola, the effervescent walking tour guide who always had us walking tour participants in splits with her sardonic humour, recalled an amusing instance, to draw home the point of indifference shown by Estonians, to each other. Once when she was travelling in a bus, she noticed one of her neighbours in front of her with her shoe laces undone. But because Estonians generally keep to themselves and are awkward at the aspect of drawing any attention, she didn’t bother telling her neighbour about her laces. This – said Nicola – was considered normal behaviour.

“So don’t get demoralised if elderly Estonians don’t return your smile. It’s just how we are,” she said.

I had five days to figure out if this was indeed true.

There’s always a bird posing against the beautiful view on Toompea Hill
Tallinn Town Hall is located in the heart of the Old Town
A green oasis alongside the 2nd century wall in Old Tallinn